Golden Anniversary year: Celebrating our history, changing to greet our future

 “Change is the law of life and those who look only to the past or present are certain to miss the future.”

– John F. Kennedy

As the UNC Charlotte Urban Institute prepares to celebrate its 50th anniversary in 2019, we are reflecting on how our history and growth mirror both the region we focus on and the university that nurtures us.

In the year ahead, we look forward to sharing the stories of the people, places and issues that have shaped our identity over the past five decades. We also look forward to showing you how we’re adapting to meet rising expectations for using data to understand and inform solutions to the public policy issues our region faces.

Organizations don’t survive for 50 years without a willingness, indeed an institutional commitment, to adapt with the times. In this era of rapid technological change, when data is more accessible than ever, I’m often asked about the institute’s ongoing relevance. My answer is paradoxically both certain and qualified. Local governments, nonprofit organizations, foundations and others who care about good public policy continue to value the insights that high-quality, university-based research can provide. They have also grown more sophisticated in their expectations of what data and research can deliver, and of how to communicate findings in an engaging and inspiring way. So, while the need for our work remains strong, our long-term relevance will depend on a willingness to meet the demand for our services in continuously fresh and innovative ways.

With that in mind, the institute enters its 50th anniversary year with a number of exciting changes in the works:

Dr. Lori Thomas to lead the Institute for Social Capital

Dr. Lori Thomas

Less than six months after Dr. Lori Thomas joined the Urban Institute as Director of Research & Faculty Engagement, she has also been named Executive Director of the Institute for Social Capital (ISC), one of the Urban Institute’s signature research programs. Thomas had been interim director of ISC since August. She replaces Dr. Amy Hawn Nelson, who left in August 2017 to join the Actionable Intelligence for Social Policy group at the University of Pennsylvania, which supports integrated data systems like ISC nationwide.

Thomas’ combined oversight of ISC and the rest of the Urban Institute’s research staff is an acknowledgment that the ISC Community Database is increasingly important to the Urban Institute’s community-based work, and that the role of integrated data systems in academic research is growing overall. Having the capacity and expertise to link data in complex ways will be a hallmark of successful applied research centers of the future.

Thomas will be uniquely positioned in her newly established dual role to unite the Urban Institute’s varied research units into a more synergistic whole. Those units include ISC and the Urban Institute’s more traditional research units, including the community indicators team (which under Laura Simmons supports the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Quality of Life Explorer and other community benchmarking initiatives), and research services (which includes the institute’s evaluation and survey research team, led by Diane Gavarkavich).

Meet Lori Thomas in this Q&A as she discusses her research on housing the chronically homeless

Expanding our understanding of the link between transportation & regional growth

Another longstanding program of the Urban Institute is the Center for Transportation Policy Studies, led for nearly two decades by Dr. Edd Hauser, who retired in 2017. As we prepare to launch a national search for his replacement in the spring of 2019, the institute is assessing how best to integrate the center’s transportation focus with the Urban Institute’s policy work on economic growth and opportunity in the Charlotte region.

Recent initiatives around economic opportunity and the growing divergence of urban and rural communities, as well as ongoing concerns about housing affordability, have highlighted the central role that transportation plays in creating a competitive regional economy that equitably distributes the fruits of prosperity. The ability of a region to sustain a vibrant economy over time often depends on quality of life issues that are also impacted by transportation decisions, including urban design, land use and environmental concerns.

As the search for our new transportation policy director begins, we look forward to welcoming an important new member to the Urban Institute team who will help us all connect the dots between a robust and comprehensive transportation policy and a healthy, equitable and sustainable regional economy.

Ashley Clark

Connecting with you

None of our research would matter if we didn’t have the ability to convey our work in an engaging and accessible manner with the pubic. The Urban Institute lost an important member of its outreach team in the fall when longtime Director of Urban Policy Initiatives Mary Newsom retired, and in the year ahead we expect to recruit and hire her replacement.

We are also consolidating institute resources to strengthen our overall outreach and engagement. Ashley Clark, who has been with the institute for several years, was named in 2017 as our first Director of Outreach & Strategic Partnerships. We recently integrated our online communications staff into her unit. When Newsom’s replacement is hired, this team will have three people dedicated to bringing quality content to these web pages.

The team will also be developing new strategies for taking our research to the public, including live events such as the new Marianne M. & Norman W. Schul Urban Institute Forum Series that we announced in November.

You’ll be hearing more about our plans for the institute’s 50th anniversary in the months ahead. I hope you feel the same excitement that we do at the Urban Institute as we continue to develop our capacity to connect ideas and to create conversations about public policy affecting people across the region.